Why the subway will never be used

I’ve spoken to many people, and have read a lot of discussions about the feasibility of either finishing the subway, or turning it into a tourist attraction. As the author of The Cincinnati Subway, I am very close to the subject, and would personally love to see the subway be used for something that would benefit the city.

Unfortunately, it is my strong opinion that the subway will forever be unused. Although the seventy-plus years old tunnels are continuously maintained (and they must be, since they support Central Parkway), they currently remain unusable for any modern project, unless they undergo a massive—and expensive—restoration.

Building codes have changed drastically since the subway was designed during the 1910s. The existing stations offer no safety features: raillings, lighted exit signs, wheelchair ramps, etc. Due to the current conditions of the subway, obtaining insurance for modern continued public occupancy is either financially unfeasible, or impossible.

The water main situated in one of the tunnels presents another hazard. Leaks have occurred before, and the tunnels have flooded. If the water main broke while an activity was taking place in the subway, human lives would be placed in major jeopardy. There aren’t many (or any) quick escapes from the subway tunnels. Whenever an organized tour takes place in the subway, the water main is shut off for the duration.
If the city decided to utilize the subway tunnels for transit (or for some other purpose), the water main would have to be relocated at a major expense. Someone would have to pay for it, and if the city had to foot the bill, taxes would surely rise.


As for using the subway as part of a light rail line, technically, the subway could be used with little modification. It was built specifically for subway cars in use during the 1920s, based partially on the New York subway. The urban legend stating that the tunnels can’t accommodate subway cars is wrong. Furthermore, it has been calculated that modern light rail cars could easily fit into the tunnels. Unfortunately, that is not the problem. The problem is that the tunnels in their present location would not add much benefit to a modern light rail system. If they were to be incorporated into a new line, new subway tunnels would have to be built to extend the current ones down Walnut Street to Fountain Square, as was originally intended. Modern construction for this project would cause an extravagantly horrible mess, given the amount of vehicle and pedestrian traffic downtown. And least of all, the water main would have to be relocated.

The subway in Cincinnati would make a wonderful tourist attraction. Messages on numerous bulletin boards on the web show that the subway continues to interest people around the country. Other websites offer virtual tours of the subway tunnels, and do a fine job. But for many, seeing pictures is just not enough. People then continually break into the tunnels and experience firsthand the fascinating history that is the abandoned subway. The City of Cincinnati keeps taking steps to prevent break-ins, but they don’t stop the determined explorers.

Visiting Cincinnati and want to see the tunnels yourself? These organizations conduct tours:

• City Hall Engineering Office takes the public on periodic tours.
• Cincinnati Museum Center conducts tours sometimes.
• Cincinnati Tomorrow takes people through every three months or so, and doesn’t even charge money. Check them out at

Currently, the subway lies empty beneath Central Parkway. It is a shame that a structure so unique and historic is being unused. About the only entity that could ever “save the subway” and turn it into something that could actually generate money would be private development. And they would have to have deep pockets to make it viable and profitable. It could work, though. How cool would it be as a tourist to spend your vacation visiting Fountain Square, taking a cruise on B&B Riverboats, shopping at Newport on the Levee, and experiencing a ride through the historic subway tunnels? It would be a moneymaker from the start: think of all the people in Cincinnati who would love to see it. All the classes from schools, all the architectural and history students would visit it; it would be a major tourist hotspot and appear in tourists’ guides to Cincinnati.

I guess right now, we can only dream.


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